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Archive for June 2014

Impressions of Morocco

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Does anybody else finds the timing of the Northern Gateway announcement ironic? As soon as the feds okayed the pipeline, mother nature sent Ontario a tornado and floods (again!) to southern Alberta.

But I don’t want to blog about that (it seems everyone else is – it’s such a big issue). Rather, I want to finish gathering my impressions about Morocco, where I played tourists last month.

Morocco doesn’t have oil or gas, and a good chunk of the country is the Sahara desert. It would make sense for Morocco to develop its solar energy, and indeed it has and keeps doing so.

Morocco became recently famous in solar circles for its participation in the Desertec project. In this scheme, newly built solar farms across the northern Sahara are to be linked to the electrical grid in Europe. The logic is impeccable: Europe is hungry for clean energy, and solar energy in the Sahara is as dependable as it gets. A common internet meme is the map (below) showing how much electricity a small area of the Sahara could produce.

A small area of the Sahara could supply the electricty consumed by the whole world.

A small area of the Sahara could supply the electricty consumed by the whole world.

Except that two factors got in the ways: first, the eurocrisis reduced the funding available for such projects to a trickle; and the North African nations have this notion that they should have first dibs on the electricity produced in their own solar farms (funny, that…). But while Desertec is on hold, the Moroccans have agressively pursued solar projects of their own. Using other funding sources (mostly Saudi), they have built a remarkable thermo-electric solar farm in Ouarzazate on the edge of the desert. This is a concentrating 160 MW plant that is expected to generate electricity around the clock for less than 20 cents a kw-hr, a first. If this works, expect to see many more.

There is much that can be criticized in Morocco’s solar strategy; the country plans to develop plants in the Western Sahara region to solidify their claim to the contested and volatile region. This approach is part of the reason why the plug was pulled on Desertec. Also, there are no incentives for individual Moroccans to invest in solar power. (There is a hot water collector on the roof of Sanaa’s house in Fez. It makes sense; tourists expect hot showers anytime of the year. But hers was one of the few, and it didn’t work. No incentives for purchases also mean few takers, and therefore no local expertise in maintaining and fixing the darn things – a missed opportunity, I think.) But still, the progress made by Morocco is remarkable.

Emerging solar energy...

Emerging solar energy…

What about wind? The Lonely Planet guidebook on Morocco describes the wind in Essaouira, on the coast, as follows: “It blows too hard to attract sun, sand and sea tourists: for much of the year, you can’t sit on the beach at all as the sand blows horizontally in your face. No surprise then that Essaouira…attracts so many windsurfers.”

No surprise, then, that Essaouira is also where where Morocco has established one of its biggest wind farms. As of 2013, Morocco had 495 MW of wind power already installed, in Essaouira as well as Tangier and others. (By comparison, that is about half the expected capacity of the proposed Site C dam; BC currently has 275 MW of installed wind farms.) Not bad, Morocco!

Completing the picture of renewable electricity is hydro power. It’s easy to forget that there is much more to Morocco than desert; the Atlas mountains catch the storms and a number of strong streams originate there.

There’s also the whole car-free thing. In Vancouver, we get car-free streets every now and then; in Europe, some streets with former car traffic are now busy pedestrian-only walking areas with shops and pubs, but they had to be fought over. Not so in Morocco; each town and city has its own medina, or old city, which are all wonderful labyrinths of narrow alleys, often with stairs, which cars have never penetrated. Until recently these older neighbourhoods were considered backwards; but now, Moroccans cherish their medinas. Sanaa, our host in Fez, moved there from Casablanca and would never go back. “The air is so much cleaner in the old city, she says. And it’s much quieter without all that traffic.” And that’s in Fez, where the medina is considered the largest car-free urban zone in the world. If that is backwards, gimme backwards.

and not a car in sight

and not a car in sight

Marrakesh recognized that in the sixties. Its main square, the Djemaa el-Fna, is a large open space at the entrance of the medina. It used to be fairly derelict and served as a bus terminal. But the authorities decided to ban car and truck traffic on the square, which is probably the wisest thing they could have done: given back to the community, the square is now the central focus of the town (and probably biggest single tourist attraction in Morocco): food stands and hawkers of all descriptions ply their trade for locals and tourists alike.

Speaking of shops: we bought some argan oil while we were in Marrakesh. It’s a very nice oil used both for cooking and as cosmetic that comes from the argan tree, native to Morocco (and found only there), a very hardy plant that withstands drought and anchors soils against erosion. Apparently the oil is now all the rage with celebrity chefs and gourmet restaurants. I wished I could have seen the trees, myself; but this is another example of a rediscovered heritage crop that plays a key ecological role, and is now preserved because a market (and jobs) has now been created. Amen for biodiversity – I’m sure there’s much more to be uncovered in Morocco. I was only there for a couple of weeks. But as a tourist, I love to discover reasons for optimism, and Morocco, with its enlightened development and its sweet people, gave me many.

Written by enviropaul

June 18, 2014 at 5:50 pm